Holy Hygiene

“When you are encamped against your enemies, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing.

10 “If any man among you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp. He shall not come inside the camp, 11 but when evening comes, he shall bathe himself in water, and as the sun sets, he may come inside the camp.

12 “You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. 13 And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. 14 Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you. – Deuteronomy 23:9-14 ESV

As we have discussed before, the God of Israel was anything but a distant and disinterested diety who with no personal stake in the lives of His people. He cared deeply about every aspect of their lives. The laws God gave them to regulate their lives provide ample proof that His interest in them went well beyond matters concerning worship, tithing, and offering sacrifices to Him.

In these verses, Moses provides the people of Israel with instructions regarding war. As they prepared to enter the promised land, battle was going to be an inevitable part of their future. In order to occupy the land, they were going to have to conquer its inhabitants. So, God provided  Moses with instructions outlining their behavior while conducting military campaigns. Even during times of war, God expected the men of Israel to maintain a sense of decorum and to do all that was necessary to keep themselves holy or set apart before God. War would not be an excuse for wickedness. If anything, it would call for even greater care on the part of the people, to ensure that they did not defile themselves before God.

Because Israel did not maintain a standing army but operated on the basis of a mandatory militia, the men of fighting age all had to be ready at a moment’s notice to suit up for action. These excursions could last for indefinite periods of time and would require a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the nation. Men would be called away from their homes and families. Their farms, fields, and vineyards would go untended in their absence. Forced to leave their wives behind, these men would find themselves facing all kinds of temptations. And during these military campaigns, the encampments filled with men could easily become breeding grounds for lax moral behavior.

The first command concerned an avoidance of anything and everything that was considered evil. The old phrase, “boys will be boys” applies here. God knew that a crowd made up entirely of men would be like a magnet for wickedness. These men would find themselves tempted by everything from off-color humor to sexual promiscuity. In every century, gatherings of soldiers have always attracted prostitutes. And the heat of battle with its ever-present threat of death can cause any man to lose faith and compromise his moral convictions. So, Moses called the men of Israel to keep themselves pure, even during times of war.

The next two verses get very specific and graphic. They deal with ceremonial uncleanness as a result of a man having nocturnal emissions. Without their wives to satisfy their sexual needs, this was going to be a normal and natural occurrence. But it would also leave the individual in an impure state and in need of purification. God had provided very specific instructions concerning this matter.

“If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until the evening. And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:16-17 ESV

Ceremonial impurity was unacceptable. But so was physical impurity. That’s why Moses went on to provide the men with instructions regarding the disposal of human waste. These encampments could easily be filled with tens of thousands of men, creating a significant hygiene problem. With that many men gathered in one place for a prolonged period of time, waste disposal would have to be a major priority or disease and dysentery could easily diminish the full effectiveness of the army. So, Moses instructed each soldier to carry an implement for burying his waste. And they commanded to go outside the camp in order to relieve themselves. This would help prevent the spread of disease but also encourage privacy and modesty. But even more importantly, it would maintain purity in the camp, which was essential “Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you” (Deuteronomy 23:14 ESV).

Even while on bivouac, the men of Israel were to consider the constant presence of God. He was always in their midst and, therefore, they were to maintain a sense of decorum and reverence, treating their temporary living conditions with the same care and concern as they would their own homes.

Jesus made the statement, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20 ESV), and this thought would be true of the men of Israel as they gathered together to fight in the name of God. Holiness in the camp was essential. Impurity could easily result in God’s departure from their midst and that would prove to be a devastating outcome. Even in the heat of battle, holiness was required.

“…therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you. – Deuteronomy 23:14 ESV

There was to be no time or place where holiness was not the Israelites’ highest priority. And while the life of the Christ-follower will also include moments of spiritual warfare, there is no excuse for compromise or moral laxness. Purity in the camp should always be our highest priority. The presence of God is real and He is with us in each and every circumstance. So, His call that we be holy as He is holy applies to every occasion in which we find ourselves, whether in the safety of our home or the heat of the battle.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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